Lander alumnus Donald Pettit is FEMA’s rising star

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Donald Pettit, a 2006 Lander University graduate, was born and raised in the small town of Pauline, just outside of Spartanburg.

After graduating from high school, Pettit decided that the hour-drive from his hometown to Lander’s campus in Greenwood was close to home, but far enough away to fill his desire to travel. So he enrolled in classes at the University.

Those hometown roots have now expanded far beyond Pauline – across state lines, country borders and overseas. Today, Pettit serves as a Federal Disaster Recovery Officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In his role with FEMA, he works through the joint field offices of disaster areas facilitating recovery operations and is the highest career official at the disaster field office. In his department, he reports to Deanne Criswell, President Joe Biden’s nominee for administrator of FEMA.

In his position with FEMA he has the opportunity to use his combination of skills and education he gained while at Lander, where he double majored in business and psychology. One of the reasons Pettit chose to study those fields  was because he recognized that both areas created opportunities in which he could help a lot of people at once.

Pettit said that working towards these degrees offered a “really cool” educational juxtaposition, especially considering the way the professors approached teaching classes and how they viewed the world when compared to each other.

He noted that while each of his professors had a different approach to teaching, they were “really instrumental in just encouraging their students to get out there, participate in real world activities in whatever sense they could, and get a sense of what they’re good at and what they’re passionate about.”

He credits his education and relationships with his professors with helping him figure out what he wanted to do for a career.

“I had this reinforced in grad school, but I really learned it first at Lander: being a student is kind of like a skeleton key. It can get you in a lot of interesting places to learn about potential career paths, different interests and pursuits,” said Pettit.

After spending a few years traveling and working abroad after graduating from Lander, Pettit returned to the U.S. in 2014. While finishing his Master in Business Administration from Antioch University New England in June of 2017, he was working in a more traditional business career with a startup company.

When he eventually decided to move on, he remembered a conversation he’d had in the past about FEMA, and decided to sign up for their reservist program. “I signed up for it thinking, ‘they’re never going to call me, they don’t need me,’” he said. “It’s a freelance program, I figured I was throwing my name in the hat.”

A couple weeks later, he was brought on and deployed to Florida to assist with the devastation brought on by Hurricane Irma. He worked with Florida’s governor and the state’s economic advisors to address some of the issues that resulted from the storm. One of the largest issues that arose from Irma was the damage done to agriculture, and he played a part in helping them get back on their feet economically.

“Just being able to understand that their focus and their expertise is on growing crops, not necessarily the business side of it, it was really great to feel like I can contribute here and help people,” said Pettit.

After working in Florida, a supervisor learned that Pettit spoke Spanish and deployed him to Puerto Rico to work through the damage caused by Hurricane Maria.

“I ended up a couple of months later landing in Puerto Rico, where I worked for most of 2018 on the economic side of things,” he said.

While his job may seem more centered around business, his psychology education plays a big role in how he’s able to communicate and empathize with affected communities. Looking through a cultural lens and understanding why certain demographics value things, such as farming, allows him to connect with, and help, the communities more effectively.

Following Puerto Rico, Pettit was assigned to the Recovery Reporting Analytics Division  at FEMA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In 2020, Pettit was recruited to one of FEMA’s National Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMAT) which are rapidly deployed to coordinate the federal government’s response in the immediate hours following a disaster. These teams remain onsite to provide response efforts designed to save lives, protect property, and support the community in stabilization after the disaster. As a member of the incident management team, Pettit assisted with disaster responses for hurricanes Laura, Sally, Delta and Zeta.

“My role there was to figure out how we build the architecture to lay the foundation for successful and long-term recovery,” he said. “It all goes back to some of the things I learned at Lander and building off of that.”

Pettit said that the typical business side of things is a starting point for recovery after a disaster. He helps the impacted community by working with leadership and businesses – focusing on economic strategies that can help restore things back to normal. Pettit said the job can be thought of like a “chief coordination officer,” whose goal is to launch long-term recovery efforts in disaster areas.

Thinking back to his Lander education, relationships with professors, internships and post-graduate travels and work, Pettit believes his education and experiences have “in a weird, kind of Plinko adventure, led me to my career at FEMA.”

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